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Congress Declares War “for Democracy”: April 6, 1917

A captured U-boat on the Thames near London, 1918

By early 1917, the British blockade of Germany was beginning to have dire consequences on German civilians. Plagued by food shortages, the German people’s morale suffered and their enthusiasm to continue the war flagged. To counter the British blockade effectively, the German government decided it must resume its own blockade of Great Britain. In late January, the German government communicated, along with its minimum terms for peace, an announcement that on February 1 it would commence unrestricted submarine warfare against Allied and neutral ships sailing into the restricted “war zone.” On February 3, President Wilson broke off diplomatic relations with Germany.

Germany knew it was gambling — unrestricted submarine warfare could bring the United States into the war on the side of the Entente. Still, the German government hoped that it could break Britain’s power before America could assemble her war power. On his side, Wilson still was unwilling to push Germany into any hasty action that would force the United States to enter the war. The president even ordered a slow down on military preparedness measures. But events would not wait on the president’s desires.

Woodrow Wilson in 1916

On February 17, the Cunard passenger liner Laconia set sail from New York harbor, bound for England. Eight days later, it was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. Then, on February 26, the British Naval Intelligence Service presented the United States Department of State with a note, a decoded message from the German foreign secretary Zimmerman to the German minister in Mexico. If the United States should enter the war on the Allied side, said the note, the German government proposed “an alliance on the following basis with Mexico: That we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.”

The sinking of the Laconia and the Zimmerman telegram jolted many Americans from their neutrality. Public meetings were held, petitions were signed, manifestos were issued — all in favor of a declaration of war against Germany. On February 26, Wilson asked Congress’ permission to arm merchant ships and to “employ any other instrumentalities or methods to protect them on their lawful occasions.” This was the 64th Congress’ last session, and Senator La Follette’s filibuster defeated the legislation. A disgusted Wilson declared that “a little group of willful men have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.” The president ignored Congress and ordered the arming of merchant ships.

Tsar Nikolai II following his abdication in March 1917

Then, on March 15, revolution in Russia; Tsar Nikolai II abdicates; a “republican” government is established in Moscow. Now every Allied government is a “government of the people,” at least in Wilson’s mind. Germany and her allies remain monarchies. The war now appears to be a war between democracy and autocracy, between freedom and tyranny. This is a fight the idealist Wilson could enter, and the sinking of three unarmed American merchantmen, without warning, by U-boats on March 18 gave him further reason to enter it.

Wilson had called the new 65th Congress into special session for April 2. That day, before the assembled legislators, Wilson laid out the country’s grievances against Germany, calling the “warfare against commerce” — a warfare in which innocents died — “a warfare against mankind.” Armed neutrality, he said, “now appears … impracticable” because it was impossible for ships to protect themselves against submarine attack. “With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking,” continued Wilson, “and of the grave responsibilities which it involves, but in unhesitating obedience to what I deem my constitutional duty, I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the government and people of the United States; that it formally accept the status of belligerent, which has thus been thrust upon it; and that it take immediate steps not only to put the country in a more thorough state of defense but also to exert all its power and employ all its resources to bring the Government of the German Empire to terms and end the war.”

Wilson declared that the United States would continue to follow the same object in war as she had in peace — “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth insure the observance of those principles.” Then, alluding to the ideal, expressed in the “Peace without Victory Speech,” of the establishment of a “concert of power” among all nations, Wilson said, “we are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.”

President Wilson asks Congress to "make the world safe for democracy"

Always the idealist, Wilson asserted that the United States was “about to accept gauge of battle” with Germany, “this natural foe to liberty,” for “the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy,” proclaimed Wilson. “Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”

It was Holy Week. The Senate, on April 4, 1917, voted 82–6 to declare war on Germany. The House followed suit, 373 to 50, on Friday, April 6: Good Friday. The country, it seemed, was not so much about to enter a war, but a crusade for democracy, freedom, and, maybe, permanent peace. The war to make the world “safe for democracy” would become, for many, the war to end all wars. The defeat of Germany was to usher in an era of peace.

But not everyone had such high-flown notions. “We did not go to war to make democracy safe,” Theodore Roosevelt would later write, “and we did not go to war because we had a special grievance. We went to war, because, after two years, with utter contempt of our protests, [Germany] had habitually and continually murdered our noncombatant men, women and children on the high seas, Germany formally announced that she intended to pursue this course more ruthlessly and vigorously than ever. This was the special grievance because of which we went to war, and it was far more than an empty justification for going to war … my own belief is that we should have acted immediately after the sinking of the Lusitania.

Songs that Sang America to War

Two popular war songs from 1917, published in the United States.

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